The road less traveled: How Google does Streetview for the world’s oceans

Turtles have homes too, and Google (s GOOG) wants to show us how they live: Google Ocean Program manager Jenifer Austin Foulkes and Unterwater Earth founder Richard Vevers gave a fascinating talk Thursday about the company’s Underwater Streetview project, showing how divers use special cameras and explaining why the project is so important.

One of the underwater Streetview cameras, on display at Google I/O.

One of the underwater Streetview cameras, on display at Google I/O.

Google launched Streetview for the world’s oceans in cooperation with Underwater Earth the at the end of last year, and has mapped a total of six sites so far, including the Great Barrier Reef in Australia as well as reefs in Hawaii and the Philippines. Vevers explained that his organization’s Catlin Seaview Survey has been using divers carrying custom-made cameras that shoot photos every three seconds, with divers being able to cover about two kilometers during every expedition.

That’s slow — maybe too slow. The world’s coral reefs are receding quickly, which has been one of the main motivations behind the project. “We set up our project to reveal the reefs of the world,” Vevers said, adding: “People don’t want to protect anything they can’t see.”

However, Verers said showing off the beauty of coral reefs to the world is only “half the story.” The project has also been working on image recognition technologies, with the goal of mapping species and giving scientists around the world access to new material to work with.

So why did Google get involved with the project? Foulkes said that it wasn’t driven by commercial motivations, but freely admitted that it was also about showing off the capabilities of Google Maps. One example: Vevers’ team uses Google’s business photos tool, which is meant to give stores the ability to upload panoramic photos, to create its underwater photospheres.

Vevers’ plan is to capture and reveal all of the world’s coral reefs within the next three years. “We feel this is very much a race against time,” he said. That’s why the project now wants to enlist amateurs in its quest as well. Divers can simply use their cell phones in water-proof cases and then upload their photospheres to Google Maps. And he urged volunteers to become active soon: “What happens in the next ten years is likely going to affect our oceans fo the next 10,000 years.”